The Office for Students (OfS) today called for urgent action to tackle harassment and sexual misconduct in universities and colleges. OfS chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, urges all higher education providers to review their policies, systems and procedures before the next academic year.
The call comes as the regulator today published its statement of expectations, which outlines the practical steps that universities and colleges should be taking to tackle harassment and sexual misconduct – including harassment based on age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
The framework provides a clear and consistent set of standards that all universities and colleges can follow to implement effective systems and policies to both prevent and respond to incidents. For example, all universities and colleges should:
- have the processes in place to allow students to report and disclose any incidents and work to minimise potential barriers to reporting and disclosing
- ensure that investigatory procedures are fair and independent, and that those involved get effective pastoral support
- clearly set out behavioural expectations for all students, staff and visitors. Codes of conduct should be made clear to new and continuing students and staff as part of induction and relevant ongoing activities.
Writing in a blog for the OfS website today, Nicola Dandridge says:
“Despite some improvements, progress has been uneven. We still see a lack of consistent and effective systems, policies and procedures across the sector. As a result, students continue to report worrying cases that have not been properly addressed by their university or college.”
On the OfS statement of expectations, Ms Dandridge writes:
“These expectations provide a standard. It is now for all universities and colleges registered with the OfS to put these principles into practice.
“Having the right processes is important. Students should feel confident reporting and disclosing incidents, knowing that they will be listened to and their reports will be dealt with appropriately. Staff need the right training to enable them to respond effectively and sensitively to disclosures and reports from students – if only to know to refer students on quickly to whoever is best placed to provide the right support.
“Good communication matters too. Universities and colleges need to explain clearly to students, staff and visitors what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. By providing this clarity, as well as raising awareness of the nature and impact of harassment and sexual misconduct, they can help prevent harmful incidents.”
“Using this statement of expectations as a yardstick can go a long way to ensuring students have confidence that cases of harassment and sexual misconduct will be properly addressed. We have not developed it in isolation: we developed it building on existing research, evidence and practice from across the sector as well as through dialogue with student and sector representatives and specialist organisations. We also drew on the experiences of some students faced because of the pandemic.
“We are not, at this stage, formally connecting this statement of expectations to specific conditions of registration. It sets out expectations, not regulatory requirements. This should give universities and colleges the time and opportunity to review their policies, systems and procedures before the next academic year drawing on these expectations.”
Ms Dandridge concludes:
“Publishing this statement of expectations represents a major step in ensuring that all students feel safe during their time in higher education. It is a real opportunity for universities and colleges to make a difference and I would strongly urge them to grasp it.
“Over the next year we will examine how universities and colleges have responded. We will particularly want to hear from students and students’ unions that things are changing for the better. As part of this process, we will consider options for connecting the statement directly to our conditions of registration.”
“Dealing effectively with harassment and sexual misconduct - wherever it may occur - will require action, commitment and collaboration. The result should be that meaningful support is provided to students when they need it, and that all incidents are dealt with effectively and sensitively. That is the least students should expect and we are determined to make sure they get it.”